When Were Airbags Invented? (Earlier Than You Think)

Airbags are inventions that arguably make more sense than any other safety feature for passengers in a car. They have had a long history between the first time they appeared to what they have become now.

In fact, you may wonder when exactly airbags were invented. If you’d like to find out, keep reading to see what I learned!

When Were Airbags Invented?

Airbag systems can be traced back to 1919 where a pair of British dentists got a patent for one that was to be used in military airplanes so pilots wouldn’t break their jaws upon impact, but they never followed through with actually making it. Airbags as we know them today were invented decades later, as we’ll look at below.

For information on the history of airbags, including who invented them, how and where they were invented, and more, keep reading!

When Were Airbags For Cars Invented?

An American engineer got a patent approved for an airbag a few months before a German engineer, even though the latter had filed an application for their patent nearly a whole year before.

Therefore, if you consider invention to mean a patent, then you could say airbags were invented in the 1950s.

However, if you consider invention to be something that is built and proven to work, then you can say that airbags were invented in the 1970s.

Who First Invented Airbags?

Who First Invented Airbags?

The concept of the airbag has been suggested at many different points in the past, and it took decades before it was perfected.

For this reason, several people have been credited with inventing the first airbag, so we will look at the most significant creators who have been proven to have had the idea the earliest as opposed to those who perfected it and got it to market.

In 1919, two British dentists by the names Arthur Parrott and Harold Round came up with an airbag system for military aircraft, applied for a patent and had it granted the following year.

They didn’t go ahead to actually build an airbag, but they’re still considered by many to be the creators of the first airbag, and have been commemorated with a plaque at the University of Birmingham, their hometown.

Airbags for cars specifically can be traced back to 1952 when John Hetrick filed for a patent that was granted in August 1953.

Hetrick’s patent described the invention as a “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles” and this more or less describes airbags as we know them today.

Interestingly, in 1951, Walter Linderer, an engineer from Germany, filed for a patent for a similar product but it was not granted until November 1953 which is why credit usually goes to Hetrick.

Further, some sources assign credit to Slovenian inventor Peter Florjancic who managed to sketch the design for an airbag system but couldn’t pursue it for too long because it couldn’t work without the bags exploding.

Something that these designs all lacked was a reliable way to detect when a crash happened and deploy the airbag in time.

Modern airbags have a sensor that they use to do this, and its history can be traced back to 1968 when Allen Breed, founder of Breed Technologies, invented the first airbag crash sensor.

This sensor was electromechanical and was able to inflate the airbag within 30 milliseconds of detecting a crash.

Which Car Had The First Airbag?

In 1972, Ford manufactured an experimental fleet of about 200 Mercury Monterey units that were used by Allstate and had optional passenger airbags.

Most people consider this to be the first instance of functional airbags in vehicles, but they were actually experimental and were not available for purchase by the public.

In the early 1970s, General Motors started selling vehicles with airbags to the government for their fleets, starting with 1,000 units of the 1973 Chevrolet Impala.

At the time, the company referred to them as “cushion restraints,” and this was an exercise to test their effectiveness in the real world.

When they were proven to work, General Motors began releasing them for everyday consumers as an option between 1974 and 1976, starting with the Oldsmobile Toronado.

All the vehicles mentioned above had seatbelts as an option, but in 1987, the Porsche 944 Turbo became the first car to have both driver and passenger airbags as standard.

Which Car Company Invented The Airbag?

Which Car Company Invented The Airbag?

As noted above, the airbag wasn’t invented by any one car company.

Rather, it was thought up, designed and patented by independent inventors before car manufacturers found their way to the technology.

Ford, via its Mercury subsidiary, was the first company to put airbags on a vehicle that made it to the road while General Motors, via its Oldsmobile subsidiary, was the first company to put airbags in a car that was sold to the public.

Where Were Airbags Invented?

If you consider the 1919 patent for the airplane component to be the original airbag, then airbags were invented in Birmingham, England.

However, if you go with the first person to come up with the idea for vehicles, then airbags were invented in Germany.

Further, if you go with the first person to be granted a patent regardless of when they filed it, then airbags were invented in the U.S.

Why Was The First Airbag Invented?

Regardless of who you consider the original inventor of the airbag, it was invented for one general purpose- protection in the event of a crash.

Parrott and Round were dentists and they had noticed the severe effects that airplane crashes had on the pilots, specifically how easy it was to break their jaw on impact.

This system was intended to prevent them from injuring themselves in this way, so they came up with a design in 1919.

Hetrick got the idea following a car accident with his wife and 7 year old child. No one was hurt, but it was enough to make him see the importance of a mechanism that prevents you from hitting the inside of the vehicle.

Did Mercedes Invent The Airbag?

Did Mercedes Invent The Airbag?

As previously established, no car company invented the airbag and the first ones to put them into cars that were actually driven were General Motors and Ford.

Therefore, Mercedes Benz did not invent the airbag, but they were the first with some innovations for the technology that lead people to believe they invented it themselves.

In December 1980, the S Class 126 was shown off during a preview where they introduced the first car with a driver’s side airbag that also incorporated a belt tensioner system for increased safety.

This vehicle would go into production and be ready for sale in a limited number of units (only about 100) in January and February 1981.

This system was referred to as the Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) and it has become standard in most vehicles today.

To learn more, you can also see our posts on airbags statistics, if airbags save lives, and how long do airbags last.

Conclusion

Airbags can trace their history to 1919 when a patent was created for use in airplanes but, for cars, they were patented in the early 1950s.

Ford was the first company to install working airbags in vehicles but GM was the first to make consumer cars with airbags.

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